Justice and sustainable economies



Alternatives for Community & Environment Inc., define sustainability as essentially a matter of equity and justice (7). Economic sustainability and justice give simultaneous results; one simply cannot happen without the other. This intersection of sustainability and social justice is referred to as environmental justice. The policy decisions made in this present day will determine who will have opportunities for many generations to come. The United States awaits action on a comprehensive climate change bill, as the Stimulus begins to inject billions of dollars into the US's troubled economy. President Obama has put emphasis on the need of making the correct choices for generations to come (Alternatives for Community & Environment 6).

Globally, there are many emerging agendas that highlight the need to orient humanity toward more just and sustainable futures. At one end of the activist and policy spectrum is environmental justice. This is a United States initiated concept that activists in the global South refer to as the ‘brown' antipollution, antipoverty agenda. The brown agenda is mainly concerned with promotion of affordable housing, clean drinking water, and infrastructure planning (Agyeman & Ogneva-Himmelberger 3). At the other end of the spectrum is what is referred to as sustainable development. This is called the ‘green' agenda and it is predominantly environmental (Dobson 83), focusing on reductions in greenhouse gases, waste, and traffic and the preservation of biodiversity.

Other ‘midway' agenda that arise when one seeks to understand justice and sustainable economies are the ‘human security' agenda and the ‘just sustainability' agenda. The human security agenda aims at facilitating critical integrations of state, human and environmental security to sustainable development. On the other hand, the key concerns of just sustainability are quality of life, justice and equity, living within ecosystem limits, and present and future generations (Agyeman & Ogneva-Himmelberger 4).

At its conception, environmental justice emerged as an opposition to unjust and polluting practices by industry. However, at present, many communities that have bought into the idea have moved beyond opposition of unjust and polluting practices into proactively exploring alternative energy solutions, community driven decision making and urban design discussions with partners in the private and public sectors (Alternatives for Community & Environment 3). These modern day solution based approaches are aimed at mitigating environmental degradation, building community political power and enhancing the overall quality of life.

For us to talk about true sustainability we would expect the participation of those that have historically been marginalized by inequitable economic and environmental practices in decision making. This is critical to ensure effective long term solutions are captured in the decisions made. So far, government policies have been benefiting a privileged few which goes against supporting real sustainability. True sustainability needs to ensure that new public investment builds long term community leadership and infrastructures. Additionally, community-driven models for sustainable development must also build wealth, opportunities, and assets within the communities. Public policy and resources need to refine the definition of sustainability and green wealth so that the values of social capital, community cohesion and well being, and other community based assets can be supported (Alternatives for Community & Environment 3).

All environmental justice groups tend to be characterized by either: their striving for full democratic participation, or their activity of building capacity for a truly sustainable infrastructure and green economy or their passion for creating and sharing green wealth.

It is for this reason that we find that different environmental justice groups, coming from different urban and rural communities across different nations, facing similar situations and exploring common approaches in their work.

Within the American context policy approaches to the questions on economic sustainability and justice have the potential to create social shifts as profound as those brought about by the Industrial Revolution and/or the New Deal. A sustainable economy will require new ways of defining wealth and the American Dream so as to enlighten the people. The American people need to be guided away from their throw-away consumer culture, over-reliance on fossil fuels and over-consumption of the Earth's resources. Policy making decisions must be guided by and made accountable to all communities, particularly those that have historically been most impacted by environmental degradation.

An American case

Activism does not always imply nay saying it needs to also involve providing solutions for example in San Diego, California a coalition led by one of the US's oldest environmental justice organizations, San Diego-based Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) successfully blocked the expansion of a fossil fuel power plant in Chula Vista, California, where over 80% of residents are people of color and 16% of all residents fall below the poverty line. Such demography is often the one that endures the most devastating effects of environmental degradation and unsustainable economies. In this case, the EHC mounted a community-wide protest that led to California Energy Commission's denial of the plant permit in June 2009 (California Energy Commission 2).

In its campaign against the plant, EHC also drafted a detailed energy plan that described the rationale and benefits for alternatives such as solar arrays on rooftops and parking lots, repair of transmission lines, and improvement of residential energy efficiency. EHC also provided expert testimony and analysis showing that these options were not only feasible and cost effective, but could provide three to four times the energy that the proposed plant would provide (Toxinformer 3).

A global case: the former Soviet Union

The change from Communist rule to independence and market economies within the former Soviet Union (FSU) resulted in a period both of intense economic and political turmoil within the countries and of tensions between them. In the mid-1990s the FSU countries were characterized by severe economic failure, eroding social and health care systems and increasing crises in ecological, environmental, and public health. For FSU republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia socioeconomic problems stand out like a sore thumb. These societies are characterized by an unstable, transitioning market economy, massive unemployment and rampant poverty. These issues are made worse by the continued decline in income for the majority and a rise in income inequality (Agyeman & Ogneva-Himmelberger 2).

The question that probably arises now is that which seeks the role of justice and sustainable economics in all this. Steps have been taken by the FSU republics with regards to the creation and implementation of legislation aimed at protecting and improving the environment and public health yet most of these legislations have been rendered ineffective by a relentless recentralization of power and a failure of implementation. We also must acknowledge that most of these former Communist republics are still struggling to achieve economic and political stability. That being the case, Agyeman and Ogneva-Himmelberger observe that activists seeking to advance brown and green agendas could well find themselves at odds with each other, competing for political, financial, and civic investment (4).

From the growing literature about the post-Soviet transitioning economies and societies we learn the fundamental lessons that could be applied to the less developed and emerging economies of the world. Firstly, political leaders are obsessed with the establishment of stable and functional market economies while they lack the knowledge, determination, or financial capacity to incorporate win-win economic and environmental strategies. This approach has stymied the development of strong environmental agenda both within governments and by NGOs present in these republics. Secondly, there is still a divide between antipoverty campaigns (the brown agenda) and environmental campaigns (the green agenda). Here the thinking is that separation of these two agenda may diminish the impact and influence of a broader movement that seeks to achieve just sustainability and human security. Finally, the cultural, political, and psychological legacy of Communism has created obstacles to the democratization of civil society, which is critical to addressing issues of environmental justice and sustainable development (Agyeman & Ogneva-Himmelberger 5).


We probably need to understand some of the factors that led the world to be in the current state that it is and why we are in dire need of having justice and sustainable economies. It has been well tested and proven by Western capitalist economies (the United States in particular) that the greater the income inequality within the population, the worse the public health and welfare is for the lower-income communities. Bennett informs us that according to Her Majesty's Government's own report into inequality, the divide between rich and poor in the United Kingdom is at an all time high since the Second World War (para 1). What aggravates the situation is the fact that the British government has spent billions of pounds in programs aimed at narrowing the gap in the past 10 years. Have these funds all gone to waste? The report brings out a worrying statistic that shows the class divide now opening up among children as young as three years old. Note that in income inequality, the Great Britain is ranked in seventh place, paces behind countries such as the US, Mexico and Turkey.

Michael Edelstein adds that another reason why the world is where it is results from what he refers to as a ‘contaminating culture.' Edelstein says that as contaminating cultures, the two superpowers then (Russia and the United States) shared a general disregard for the earth, its people, and biodiversity in favor of industrialization and militarization. Involvement in the Cold War set the two nations on parallel paths of technological and social development fueled by civilian nuclear power and the widespread use of hazardous chemicals, even in food production, all at the expense of the environment (Edelstein 1). To confront this toxic legacy, the world must acknowledge its ecocide of the past and promote grassroots efforts to create a sustainable economy.

We cannot fail to look at another key contributing factor to this state of affairs in the world, globalization. Due to the increased volume of trade and business globally the explosive growth of the global economy is now threatening the natural systems that sustain life on Earth. Traditional environmental protection techniques have become less and less effective. For this reason, most environmental policies in the world are in transition. It has become evident that the traditional regulatory system has become less effective therefore stakeholders have begun to look at new approaches like voluntary, performance-based environmental initiatives.

New concepts have arisen out of the need to mitigate social conflicts resulting from sharing of environmental risks, the loss of access to natural resources and the burdens of pollution. Most of these conflicts are a result of economic growth occurring at the expense of the environment. Ecological Economics is a new field of study created by economists and ecologists who take nature into account to mitigate the clash between economy and environment. Ecological Economics puts inequality of values at the core of its analysis (Martinez-Alier para1).

Guiding principles for social justice, wealth and sustainable economic activity (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung 1-4)

Ten guiding principles have been proposed for anyone who seeks to put in place structures that will spread prosperity and social justice to the masses. The guiding principles are subsidiarity and solidarity. Subsidiarity forms and guarantees the space for individual initiative and responsibility while solidarity guarantees that the market economy is repeatedly legitimized by its orientation to the common good. The guiding principles are as follows:

1. Legal framework

A functioning, reliable and democratically legitimate legal system is the basis for efficient and sustainable economic activity. It regulates elements and ensures that rules are followed thus creating the conditions necessary for a strong economy. Legal frameworks guarantee fair competition to the benefit of the society.

2. Property ownership and employment

Private ownership is the basis of innovation and entrepreneurship. It provides the impetus for generating income through work which ultimately safeguards employment on a sustainable basis. Private ownership also manifests a competitive system where owners are liable for their economic activity through use of their personal property. Nevertheless, ownership needs to involve social obligations so that it is not abused for short-term profit-seeking at the expense of the society.

3. Competition as the basis

Competition is rooted in performance and equality of opportunity. It fosters progress and efficiency. A global competitive system should be based on the free determination of prices for optimal allocation of scarce resources. Sustained economic activity is driven by fully functional competition.

4. Application of the principle of liability

Competition necessitates adherence to the principle of liability to curb participants from engaging in excessively risky or irresponsible behavior.

5. Stability of the economic environment

This is important especially to national and international financial markets because a stable economic framework inspires investor and consumer confidence. To retain this confidence protectionist measures must be rejected.

6. Provision of public goods by the state

In as much as we state that state intervention be limited within a market economy, provision of public goods must be guaranteed especially where the market is unable to provide them adequately. The state needs to guarantee provision of efficient infrastructure, educational opportunities, and access to healthcare if there is to be a just and sustainable economy.

7. Solidarity and social security

The market economy has been accused for not being capable of preventing the development of income disparities and thus rendering certain sections of the population to be disadvantaged. Economic growth in the real sense is supposed to reduce poverty therefore a market economy requires effective social security systems for regional redistribution in order to preserve social peace. Social security systems also enable appropriate levels of participation by broad sections of the population in the development of the economy and society.

8. Incentive compatibility

A market economy requires an incentive-oriented system of levies to finance state tasks. These taxes must be designed in such a way that they neither minimize performance incentives nor lead to allocative distortions.

9. Sustainability

Sustainability is an economic and moral obligation. It entails maintenance of nature and biodiversity for future generations. Moreover, an economic system can only be truly judged by its long term results in which case environmental responsibility and liability demonstrate sustainability.

10. Open markets

With globalization here with us the importance of open markets internationally cannot be stressed further. The relevant international institutions must be given teeth to counter economic nationalism and protectionism while coordinating policy of open markets and respect for the rules of fair play.


To ensure full and meaningful participation of all communities in spending decisions the following recommendations are given:

1. Actively solicit input of communities on how policies might stimulate the overall wealth, well being, and life opportunities in their neighborhoods.

2. Researchers and policy makers need to tap the experience and wealth of knowledge from the communities they seek to serve.

3. Accountability, transparency and public reporting are vital to ensure equity therefore they should be integral characteristics of policies and decision making.

4. New evaluation tools need to be developed to measure the impact of policies in terms of their ability to sustain community cohesion, well being and sustained local ecologies.

To ensure that investment is done only in truly sustainable infrastructure and economic development the following recommendations are given:

1. Invest in energy efficient, green, and affordable housing for low and moderate income residents and families. Retrofit buildings and homes to save energy, with a focus on reducing costs to lower income residents and locally owned businesses.

2. When seeking to meet energy demands for a locality do so in the following priority: 1) energy efficiency; 2) demand reduction; 3) renewable energy and distributed generation. This means that energy efficiency projects, especially in low income communities, take priority over new power plants. Prioritize development of local renewable energy infrastructures over building new transmission lines.

3. Provide resources and incentives to local and state governments to reduce carbon use and other environmental impacts.

4. Fund infrastructure projects that are consistent with equitable development, regional equity, and smart growth principles.

To create shared green wealth the following recommendations are given:

1. Invest in programs that build community involvement in neighborhood stabilization and revitalization projects, including developing anti-displacement and community engagement policies and ensuring that these projects result in local benefits for current residents.

2. For jobs generated by public funding target hiring and training of the chronically unemployed and underemployed (especially our youth ages 18-24).

3. Prioritize institutions that already have effective programs for engaging and supporting the disadvantaged communities. Position these programs to serve as placement.


Increased economic and political interconnectedness promoted by the convergence of telecommunications with information communication technology (ICT) has led to increased competition and growth in many countries around the world. This rapid globalization has improved education opportunities, strengthened the social infrastructure and reduced poverty. Nevertheless, there gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow larger. This unequal distribution of wealth is a key ingredient to the rising social and political tensions. Even with the ubiquity of the internet peace, justice and freedom are still elusive concepts.

We are in dire need of a shared commitment to sustainable economic activity. We must not let the positive effects of globalization be overshadowed. We need to develop shared principles and values that take into account and appreciate the diversity of cultures among us. We need to define the foundations upon which we shall build a consensus that promotes human dignity, justice and sustainable economies for the future generations.

Works Cited

Agyeman, Julian and Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger. Environmental Justice and Sustainability in the Former Soviet Union. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009.

Bennett, Rosemary. “Gap between rich and poor ‘at its widest since the war'”. The Times, 27 Jan., 2010. 9 Apr. 2010 < http:// www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article7003694.ece>

“Chula Vista Energy Upgrade Project Final Commission Decision.” California Energy

Commission. 17 June, 2009. 9 Apr. 2010. <http:// www.energy.ca.gov/2009publications/CEC-800-2009-001/CEC-800-2009-001-CMF.PDF>

Dobson, A. ‘‘Social Justice and Environmental Sustainability: Ne'er the Twain Shall Meet?''

Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World, Eds. J. Agyeman, R. D. Bullard, & B. Evans, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. 83-95.

Edelstein, Michael “Cultures of Contamination: Legacies of Pollution in Russia and the U.S.” Research in Social Problems and Public Policy. 14. Stamford, CT: JAI Press, 2007.

Alternatives for Community & Environment, ed. Environmental Justice and the Green Economy:

A vision statement and case studies for just and sustainable solutions. Alternatives for Community & Environment, Inc., Roxbury, MA. 2010

Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, ed. Guidelines for Prosperity, Social Justice and Sustainable Economic Activity 8 Jul., 2009. 9 Apr. 2010. <http:// www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_17025-544-2-30.pdf>

Martinez-Alier, Joan. “Environmental Justice, Sustainability and Valuation.” Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values.21 Mar., 2000

“Victory in Chula Vista! EHC, residents defeat MMC power plant.” Toxinformer, 28.2, (2009): 3-4. <http://www.environmentalhealth.org/EHC_Toxinformer/ToxInformer_PDFs/Toxie_summer09_web.pdf>

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